June 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 30, 2014 – 12:02 am

John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, is known for being rather provocative.

He has a lot of fans who appreciate his “un-CEO” style which, as described by Business Insider, consists of a “trademark uniform of a black jacket over a pink T-Mobile shirt, jeans, and pink Converse All Star sneakers.” It also consists of a lot of swear words.

Many analysts have praised his effectiveness during his almost two-year tenure as CEO, with Business Insider writing that T-Mobile has enjoyed a “remarkable turnaround,” and is “growing faster than its competitors in terms of revenue and subscribers.” According to Wikipedia, J.D. Power and Associates “ranked the company highest among major wireless carriers for retail-store satisfaction four years consecutively and highest for wireless customer care two years consecutively.”

To get a sense of Legere’s unconventional style, check out this video from a company event earlier this month:

In just that one presentation, Legere used the following salty language:

  • “They’re out of their goddamn mind.”
  • “That is a complete crock of bullshit.”
  • “They’re greedy bastards.”
  • “We are absolutely kicking their ass.”
  • “A cacophony of the biggest bullshit in history.”
  • “What the fuck do I care?”
  • “The fuckers hate you.”
  • “I don’t give a crap.”
  • “Every goddamn note you listen to.”
  • “I don’t give a shit.”

John Legere

I understand what Legere is trying to do. He wants to appear “authentic” and stand in marked contrast to the CEOs of his competitors, who he feels are treating customers badly. Personally, I don’t love the CEO of a public company talking like a drunk at the local bar. Regardless, his curse words aren’t the reason he made this list. Rather, it was his highly publicized comment about his main competitors, AT&T and Verizon, that earned him widespread condemnation:

“These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have.”

One commenter in an earlier PR Daily piece pointed out that the word “rape” is a metaphor in this case, writing, “I have never been literally ‘killed’ but that’s a common term for how one team defeats another….that’s why they are called metaphors.” But Mr. Legere’s job isn’t to push the boundaries of accepted speech. He’s the CEO of a company whose job is to avoid unnecessarily offending large swaths of his potential customer base by using words that are particularly salient in our culture. 

In an open letter published on the website MomsRising, five of Mr. Legere’s female employees blasted his use of language:

“Trivializing the brutality of sexual assault is not an edgy corporate communications strategy. For many women, this is not funny. It’s traumatizing.

Being courteous to our customers is one of our highest priorities as customer service representatives. But what would happen if we ever swore on the phone? What would happen if we used the same rape metaphor in a conversation with a customer? That would certainly be our last day on the job. It’s not even a question. T-Mobile would escort us to the door — and rightfully so.

We don’t really think he’s sorry, despite his short apology on Twitter, about what he said. And that’s even more upsetting. It’s hard enough as it is to be women working the male-dominated world of tech. Our CEO’s language is just another reminder of how we don’t belong in the “boys club.”

We understand that Mr. Legere’s comments were all part of some flashy marketing scheme to get press and to appeal to young people. But is this the kind of message we want to send?”

Legere apologized for his use of the word. Nonetheless, that one word commandeered the headlines for the entire event, overshadowing any of the underlying points he had hoped to make.

John Legere Tweet

Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek summarized Legere’s shtick quite well:

“Every time he makes a public appearance, he needs to be just offensive enough to get our attention. That means he has to be slightly more offensive than the last time he got our attention. This is a machine with a ratchet, and it has now produced the deeply unfunny word ‘rape.’ Perhaps no word is sacred, but that’s a defense for an act of art—not a corporate communications strategy. John Legere sells phone plans for a living. He’s not Sarah Silverman or Lenny Bruce.”

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Did A High School Principal Plagiarize A Graduation Speech?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 24, 2014 – 6:02 am

The Roosevelt Union Free School District in Long Island, New York doesn’t mess around when it comes to plagiarism. According to its Code of Conduct, plagiarism is among the worst offenses, punishable by a suspension of up to five days: Roosevelt Plagiarism Policy

That policy, however, was written for students. What happens if a principal is the person guilty of plagiarism?

According to Yahoo News, Roosevelt High School Principal Steven Strachan appeared to plagiarize a graduation message to seniors from a fellow principal in California. After the message was printed, Strachan apparently asked permission to “quote” from the California principal, but that principal refutes some of Strachan’s claims. It’s important to note that the message was far more than a simple quote, and it wasn’t attributed at all.

Even more embarrassingly, Strachan ended his message with an address to the wrong school and mentioned the wrong academic year, writing: “Congratulations to the Albany [California] High School Class of 2013.” For his part, Strachan blames a clerical error, telling Newsday:

“I sincerely apologize to the Roosevelt community and to the class of 2014 for the inadvertent clerical error causing mistakes to be printed in the 2014 yearbook. An unedited draft of my remarks was accidentally published rather than the final version, and I take full responsibility for the oversight.”

That excuse seems to be the new de facto response issued by plagiarizers; an Australian PR executive who appeared to plagiarize from my website earlier this year used the same excuse.

Two things make this story even worse.

Steven Strachan

1. Principal Strachan released the statement above through Zimmerman/Edelson, a PR firm, instead of issuing the statement personally.

As a result, he appears to be hiding behind a PR firm—and as of this writing, he appears not to have commented on this issue personally. The language in the statement is tepid and, to my eyes, unbelievable. A sincere apology doesn’t blame other people (unnamed people who caused the clerical error); use distancing passive language; and label the incident an “inadvertent…oversight.”

2. A member of the school district’s leadership team blamed the media for covering the story.

According to Newsday:

“Alfred T. Taylor, vice president of the Roosevelt school board, told the paper that the incident was an ‘unfortunate mistake that occurred’ and surprisingly said that ‘It’s unfortunate that somebody thought it was newsworthy.’”

It appears to me that Mr. Taylor should consult his own school district’s policy toward plagiarism and explain, specifically, why this principal should be dealt with less severely than a student who committed the same action.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

A grateful tip o’ the hat to reader Art Aiello; Steven Strachan photo via Yahoo News

 


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As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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Dear Monica Wehby: Sorry, But You Can’t Polish This Turd

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 12, 2014 – 6:02 am

Dr. Monica Wehby is Oregon’s Republican nominee for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

According to Politico, she was accused “by her ex-boyfriend last year of ‘stalking’ him, entering his home without his permission and ‘harassing’ his employees, according to a Portland, Oregon police report.”

A Los Angeles Times report found that her behavior wasn’t confined to a single incident: “Wehby’s ex-husband and former boyfriend both [called] police and [accused] her of harassment in three separate episodes over roughly six years.”

These are difficult charges for any political candidate to contend with, and Dr. Wehby has struggled to put these incidents behind her. But her latest attempt at damage control was rather brazen.

Monica Wehby

According to The Associated Press, Wehby said:

“‘I think that the thing to learn from that is that I am a person who will stand up for what I believe in,’ Wehby said of the police reports. ‘I’m a person who doesn’t easily back down. I will fight for Oregonians with very strong conviction. I’m a very committed, determined person.’”

Did Dr. Wehby just try to sell her alleged stalking as a virtue by suggesting that the same traits that led two former partners to call the police would be useful in her role as a U.S. Senator?

Her blatant attempt to spin those police reports brought two rather crass phrases to mind: She’s trying to “polish a turd” and “put lipstick on a pig.” (To be clear, the “pig” in that analogy is not Dr. Wehby, but the stalking allegations themselves.)

Talk about a double standard. Could you imagine if a male candidate had used a similar approach? It would doom his race, similar to how Todd Akin’s infamous comments about “legitimate rape” led to national ridicule. 

Wehby’s technique of trying to turn a negative quality into a virtue can work in some instances. Ralph Nader turned his curmudgeon-like personality into a more positive image as a “crusader,” and John McCain turned his occasional lack of party loyalty into a more appealing image of being a “maverick.”

But turning stalking allegations into a positive? That’s one step too far—and completely unnecessary, considering that her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend are both reportedly supporting her campaign.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Is “I Didn’t Mean That Thing I Said” A Credible Excuse?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 5, 2014 – 5:02 am

Comedian Jonah Hill was caught on video last weekend telling a photographer who was following him, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”

I have big issues with paparazzi (and the outlets that buy their photos) who make a living violating the personal space and privacy of celebrities for profit; that stars snap occasionally in such situations seems like an understandable human response.

But what caught my attention was Jonah Hill’s first apology, in which he said: “In that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people.”

Hill’s response seems to fit into the de rigueur crisis response in such situations, which goes something like this: “Although I said what I said, it doesn’t represent who I am or what I believe.” (Hill’s apology on Tuesday’s The Tonight Show seemed sincere, and I doubt he’ll incur much reputational damage.)

Alec Baldwin used a similar approach after unleashing gay slurs last year: “As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Catch that? Although he said what he said, his words don’t represent his views.

After Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks, he apologized by saying: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”

Even (former) disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling tried a similar statement: “25 percent of my home game are black people and I love them.”

Here’s my question: Does the “What I said doesn’t represent what I feel” approach work? Is it credible?

Alec Baldwin Tweet

In Jonah Hill’s case, it might. He seemed genuinely aggrieved by his choice of words and their impact. And yet…if there wasn’t a place somewhere in him that viewed gay people differently, would he have chosen to lash out by calling someone a faggot? If Mel Gibson didn’t view Jews at least somewhat negatively, would he have used anti-Semitic slurs? Isn’t the language we choose representative of the thoughts we think?

Personally, I’m finding this type of response less and less credible. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), who destroyed his career after a particularly ugly rant against African Americans (he repeatedly screamed the n-word at black audience members in a comedy club), may have gotten his response right: “I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there,” he said.

That seems to be a more credible approach. I’d rather see a similar type of response in these instances: “Clearly, my choice of words tells me that I have some work to do on myself. Those words are ugly, hurtful, and even dangerous–and I will do everything in my power to understand the source of my prejudices and do the work it takes to extinguish them. In the meantime, I apologize for perpetuating the hurt so many people have endured.”

Does The "I Didn't Mean What I Said Approach" Work?

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What PR Pros Can Learn From Justin Bieber’s Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 3, 2014 – 6:02 am

Earlier this week, video surfaced from five years ago of a then 15-year-old Justin Bieber telling a racist joke. If you have the stomach for such things, the video is below:

15-Year-Old Justin Bieber Tells Racist Joke – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe

 

(For those who can’t access the video, Bieber’s “joke” asked, “Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” The punchline, delivered in the cadence of a chainsaw, was, “Run, nigger, nigger, nigger.”)

According to the gossip site TMZ, Bieber knew “his own photog was in the room and rolling.” More surprisingly, TMZ exercised some editorial restraint in this case:

“TMZ got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it … in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid.  People connected with Bieber say one African American was present at the time he told the joke.” 

I respect TMZ’s restraint. Racism is too often an insidious force in our country, but I’m not sure targeting teenagers for international condemnation is the best cure. Even TMZ decided to handle this case, in which a minor was involved, differently than it would the public racism of adult stars Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, and Donald Sterling, among others. But whether or not this should be news is irrelevant—it did make news, and Bieber’s team knew it had to respond.

Justin Bieber TMZ

Here’s the statement Bieber released to TMZ:

“As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.

Thanks to friends and family I learned from my mistakes and grew up and apologized for those wrongs. Now that these mistakes from the past have become public I need to apologize again to all those I have offended. I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again.

Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what’s right. Five years ago I made a reckless and immature mistake and I’m grateful to those close to me who helped me learn those lessons as a young man. Once again….I’m sorry.”

As PR apologies go, that’s about as good as it gets. Bieber made no excuses, took full responsibility for his actions, apologized, and promised to do better. His apology offers a good template to corporate executives, politicians, and other public figures who find themselves in trouble.

There’s only one part of this apology that’s tough to accept: Bieber’s assertion that “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world.” That line would have more credibility if not for his recent arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence while drag racing (among several other unrelated infractions).

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Turkish Prime Minister’s Cold Response to Mining Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 19, 2014 – 12:02 am

301 workers were killed last week after a massive mining accident in western Turkey. The tragedy is Turkey’s worst mining disaster ever, and it appears to be the deadliest mining accident worldwide in more than 50 years.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Instanbul to protest the government, which many people say is to blame for allowing the poor mining safety conditions that led to the accident. 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did a few things right in his response. He visited the site, comforted victims, and, according to The Telegraph, he “promised the tragedy would be investigated to its ‘smallest detail’ and that ‘no negligence will be ignored.’”

But then he violated a basic rule of crisis communications that must be adhered to when fatalities are involved.

Turkey Prime Minister

Erdogan (pictured above) sought to place the tragedy in a larger context, dismissing mining accidents as “ordinary things.” He became “defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine,” according to The Telegraph

“’Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,’ he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.”

As reader Robert Durand wrote when sending me this story, parties involved in these incidents should “never attempt to put a tragedy in perspective, especially as events are still unfolding.”

He’s right. Context is not what’s needed during moments of crisis. What’s required is understanding, sympathy, and most importantly, a commitment to reducing the likelihood of similar problems in the future. (Erdogan and his aides also made several other mistakes.)

I offered a template to spokespersons confronting these types of situations in an earlier post titled “One is One Too Many.” In this case, Erdogan is unable to promise that mining accidents won’t happen in Turkey again; the dangerous nature of the work almost guarantees they will. But he would have been better served with a straightforward statement without any defensiveness:

“One mining death is excruciating; hundreds are unbearable. We may never be able to eliminate mining accidents altogether, but I will do everything in my power to reduce the likelihood of this type of mining accident from ever occurring again.”

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Donald Sterling’s Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 12, 2014 – 3:52 pm

Scroll down for two updates, including a rather jaw-dropping video.

Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers who was caught making racist remarks on audiotape last month, attempted to apologize during an interview with Anderson Cooper that will air on CNN tonight (excerpts have already been released).

Someone should tell Sterling that apologies are supposed to make things better, not worse.

Sterling, you might remember, instructed his girlfriend not to bring black people to his basketball games. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the 80-year-old told his 31-year-old girlfriend. “Do you have to?”

I wouldn’t have advised Mr. Sterling to proceed with the interview in the first place. If he insisted, I would have made clear that he had only one main message: “I said some horrible things, I have some outdated beliefs, and I hurt a lot of people. I am deeply sorry to everyone who I hurt. I will spend every one of my remaining days on this earth trying to be a better man and do some good.”

Well, that would have been the sensible approach. Instead, Mr. Sterling dug an even deeper hole for himself, offering the worst high-profile public apology since Paula Deen. Here are a few things he did wrong:

1. He Played The Victim

Mr. Sterling blamed his ex-girlfriend for “baiting” him into making his comments: “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things.” Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Sterling, but she didn’t. She may have been laying a trap for you—but you voluntarily jumped into it and created a mess of your own making. If you don’t think racist thoughts, no trap can make you suddenly spout them.

2. He Offered a Conditional Apology

When asked whether he had apologized to Magic Johnson (Sterling had instructed his girlfriend not to bring him to basketball games), Sterling said, “If I said anything wrong, I’m sorry.” If? There’s no redemption without confession. He’s clueless.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

3. He Attacked Magic Johnson…Again!

Out of everything in the interview excerpts, Sterling’s comments about a target of his original invective—Magic Johnson—was absolutely jaw-dropping: “Has he done everything he could to help minorities? I don’t think so…I just don’t think he is a good example for the children of Los Angeles.” What Mr. Sterling thinks he can gain by attacking a widely respected African American man is baffling. With those comments, Sterling reinforced his image as an out-of-touch man clinging to long-buried ideas. 

4. He’s Aiming For The Wrong Audience

Sterling is right that the team owners will ultimately cast the vote that decides his fate: “The people who are going to decide my fate, I think, are not the media, not the player’s union, but the NBA [owners].” But he seems not to understand that their votes will be swayed, in large measure, by public and player sentiment. It’s probably too late to sway them anyway—but slighting critical stakeholders will only add 500 pounds to his already Herculean lift.

A JAW-DROPPING UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

It turns out that CNN didn’t include the most jaw-dropping moment of the interview in the advance excerpts. Speaking about why he believed Magic Johnson isn’t a role model for kids, Donald Sterling said: “That he would go do what he did and get AIDS, I mean, come on.” (Remember: that was in 1991.)

Sterling’s dismissive sneering toward Magic Johnson didn’t end there. He blasted Johnson by saying, “He acts so holy. I mean, he made love to every girl in every city in America, and he has AIDS.” He culminated that rant by accusing Johnson of not doing enough to help the black community: “He doesn’t do anything.”

Sterling then said something incredibly inflammatory, claiming that Jews lend money to other Jews to develop businesses but that African Americans d0n’t do the same. “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans, maybe I’ll get in trouble again, they don’t want to help anybody.” (That was something he said voluntarily in an interview apologizing for racism!) To top things off, Sterling accused Anderson Cooper of being a bigger racist than he is.

In writing this blog for four years, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

In being a professional media trainer for more than a decade, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

There’s no amount of hyperbole that could overstate how awful this was. If Mr. Sterling thought this interview was going to rehabilitate him, he’s delusional.

UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 9:16 p.m.

I have a feeling that media trainers and crisis communications professionals will be dissecting this interview for years. But one other critical takeaway can be drawn now.

Sterling’s goal for this interview should have been to apologize sincerely and unreservedly to everyone he hurt. That’s it. There can be no forgiveness before contrition.

Instead, Sterling’s lack of discipline allowed personal animus to rule the day. Magic Johnson was tangential to this story. Yes, Donald Sterling said on tape that he didn’t want Magic Johnson coming to his games —but all Sterling had to do now was say, “That was a dumb thing to say, and I’m sorry.”

Sometimes people scoff at the idea of PR pros or attorneys sitting in with clients during these types of interviews. Sterling didn’t have one. Their value likely seems a lot clearer now.

What did you think of this interview? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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